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Beat the Devil

Russian Hero

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England in the late 1940s was famously grim. As I remember it, London back then was a very dirty place, from coal dust and smoke, from the grit stirred up every day by the jackhammers still clearing out rubble from the Blitz.

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Alexander Cockburn
Alexander Cockburn, The Nation's "Beat the Devil" columnist and one of America's best-known radical...

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Pose a political threat to Business As Usual and sooner or later, mostly sooner, someone will try to kill you.

My father was edging his way tactfully out of the Communist Party, though he was still spending time at the Daily Worker. He was under constant surveillance by the Special Branch, whose officers followed him and tapped his phone from 1934 to 1954. Logs available in nineteen boxes in the public archives in the British Library disclose my first entry into the shadow of state surveillance in 1948 when, at age 7, I called my father at the Worker and asked him to hurry home to read to me about Christopher Robin.

No one had any money. Fun for millions was the weekly flutter on racehorses or football teams. “Is the Middle Class Doomed?” asked Picture Post in 1949, and answered its question in the affirmative. Labor’s National Health Service opened for business on July 5, 1948, and the great race for drugs, false teeth and spectacles was under way. Spending on prescriptions went from £13 million to £41 million in two years, prompting Representative Paul Ryan’s ideological predecessors to howl that the NHS was on the edge of collapse. More than my father’s articles in the Worker, the NHS helped the masses see clearly. Hundreds of thousands of poor people previously had recourse only to prescriptionless specs from the tray in Woolworths. Now they perched on their noses prescription lenses in the 422 Panto Oval frame, as did I, though it took John Lennon, fifteen years down the road, to endow it with retro-chic.

At the Worker, with or without prescription spectacles, there wasn’t much sign of the fabled millions in Moscow gold supposedly sent by Stalin to foment revolution. In practical terms the most important fellow in the office was a scholarly looking Burmese man who toiled away behind a vast pile of books and manuals. My father reckoned he was set to turn in a particularly meaty series on Burma’s prospects after independence, won in 1948 from British colonial rule. In fact he was the Worker’s racing correspondent, working up form for the coming season.

The Burman was red-hot as a tipster and soon had a wide following. Once my father found the Worker’s manager half-dead from apprehension. He’d put the entire office’s Friday wage packet on a pick by the Burman, in the hope of getting the comrades something decent to take home to their wives. “Should that animal fail,” he said, trembling, “the lads’ll about kill me.” But the tipster came through, and that week everyone got full pay and even some arrears.

The biggest day in the National Hunt Steeplechase in England is the Grand National, run at Aintree, outside Liverpool, typically in April; four miles, 856 yards, thirty fences, often lethal to horses and devastating to jockeys. In 1928 the winner, Tipperary Tim, ridden by Billy Dutton and carrying odds of 100 to one, was the only horse out of a starting field of forty-two that didn’t fall.

Later, in Ireland, my mother bred horses. My father never cared for them, but he was pretty good at studying form and picking the odd winner, which was just as well because freelance earnings were scrawny, particularly if you were a well-known red. But when it came to Grand National day, March 26, 1949, no laborious toil over the form sheets was necessary. Among the scheduled starters that year was a horse called Russian Hero. Although the cold war was limbering up, Russians were still heroes to many. Not just members of the CPGB but a wider swath of punters in the union movement would be likely to plump for a horse carrying that name, if only as a side bet in honor of Stalingrad, the siege of Leningrad, the Kursk salient.

One of the jockeys riding that day was young Dick Francis, later the immensely popular author of a long string of racing thrillers. Francis was on a great but temperamental horse called Roimond. In the last mile he took the lead. With only eleven horses still in the race, he was set for victory. Then, just short of the finishing line, Roimond got passed by a horse going so fast Francis knew he had no chance to catch up. It was Russian Hero, ridden by Leo McMorrow, carrying starting odds of sixty-six to one. Russian Hero beat Roimond by eight lengths.

As the BBC man calling the race screamed out the finale, my father—who was no longer a party member but who’d staked his well-frayed shirt on Russian Hero—loosed a triumphant roar. So, across Britain, did all readers of the Daily Worker following the advice of the Burmese tipster, who’d picked Russian Hero, no doubt partly through rigorous assessment of the horse’s genetic profile—contrary though this Mendelian posture was to the doctrines of Lysenko, riding high in Stalin’s esteem.

It was by far the largest collective transfer of wealth ever to communism’s stalwarts in Britain. Around that time the party probably had about 50,000 members, and even a wagered half crown looked pretty good when multiplied by sixty-six.

Dick Francis took second in 1949. Seven years later, a champion jockey in his eighth Grand National, he rode Devon Loch, owned by Elizabeth the Queen Mother. Francis was ten lengths clear, less than fifty yards from winning, when Devon Loch suddenly went down on his belly, tearing muscles in the process. It’s one of horse racing’s great mysteries, though Francis thinks it was a sudden wave of noise from the crowd that spooked his horse. “That’s racing,” the Queen Mother said stoically to Francis.

The event got Francis a contract to write a memoir. He retired from the track and took up a hugely successful life of crime writing. But “given the choice,” he says, “I’d take winning the National every time. I was a jockey first, writer second. It’s good having a book well received, but it doesn’t compare to winning a race.”

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